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Healthy Environments

Wildfire Smoke and Health

Wildfires can impact the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities in several ways, including through smoke exposure. Wildfires are becoming more frequent and severe as our climate changes. Wildfires and wildfire smoke can be challenging to predict, so it is best to prepare. You can take steps to protect your health and reduce exposure to wildfire smoke by understanding the risks and actions to reduce exposure and help your body cope with the smoke. On this page will find information and resources about wildfire smoke and strategies to minimize exposure.

Wildfire Smoke

Wildfire smoke contains many air pollutants that are harmful to health, even at low levels. Wildfire smoke is a dense mixture of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and gases, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds. The mix of air pollutants can change depending on the conditions of the wildfire, weather, and other human emissions of air pollution, such as traffic-related air pollution.

Wildfire smoke can travel hundreds of kilometers. This means even when we don't have local wildfires, we can be affected by wildfire smoke from across Ontario, Canada, and even our Southern neighbours. Air quality and visibility due to wildfire smoke can fluctuate over short distances and can vary considerably from hour to hour.

Wildfire smoke can be harmful to everyone's health even at low concentrations. Air pollutants in wildfire smoke can cause irritation and inflammation. Wildfire smoke can make it harder for your lungs to get oxygen into your blood. It can irritate your respiratory system and cause an immune response, leading to inflammation affecting other body parts. Smoky air can increase the risk of some infections like pneumonia, COVID-19, and ear infections in children. Most symptoms are relatively mild.

Common, milder symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure include:

  • Sore throat
  • Eye irritation (sore and water eyes)
  • Runny noses and sinus irritation (e.g., phlegm production)
  • Mild cough
  • Headaches

Some people may experience more severe symptoms:

  • Wheezing (including asthma attacks)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Severe cough
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Heart palpitations

If you experience any of these more severe symptoms, talk to a healthcare professional or seek medical attention. If you think you could be having a heart attack, stroke, or other medical emergency, call 911 immediately.

Mild irritation and discomfort are common, and usually disappear when the smoke clears. However, infants, unborn children, and those with obstructive lung conditions (e.g., asthma, COPD) are more likely to experience longer-term health effects. Scientists are working to understand how seasonal wildfire smoke can affect health in the long term.

Mental Health

It is normal to feel anxious, stressed out, sad, or isolated during a wildfire smoke event. If you have feelings of stress, anxiety, or depression, contact your mental healthcare provider for advice or visit the Wellness Together Canada website.

While wildfire smoke can affect anyone, different people respond differently to wildfire smoke. Some people are at higher risk of health problems when exposed to wildfire smoke, including:

  • Infants and young children
  • Pregnant people
  • Older adults
  • People with existing illness (e.g., cancer, COVID-19) or chronic health conditions (e.g., lung or heart disease, diabetes)
  • People who work or spend a lot of time outdoors
  • People involved in strenuous outdoor exercise
  • People who smoke

Regardless of your health status or age, you may be affected by wildfire smoke. Listen to your body and reduce exposure if the smoke is affecting you. Remember to look out for others around you.

If you are at greater risk, speak with your healthcare provider about developing a management plan for wildfire smoke events and maintaining a supply of necessary medications at home and always carrying these medications with you during wildfire season.

Preparing for Wildfire Smoke

There are many things you can do to prepare yourself and your home for wildfire smoke.

  • Know your risk and the risk of family members to wildfire smoke.
  • Ensure you have adequate supply of medication, food, and water.
  • Ensure you have spare air filters for air filtration units (e.g., HVAC, portable HEPA filters).
  • Know where you can go to take a break from the smoke.
  • Know where to find information about local air quality conditions.

Reduce Exposure to Wildfire Smoke and Seek Cleaner Air

  • Take it easy and limit outdoor activities and strenuous physical activities on smoky days. The harder you breathe, the more smoke you inhale.
  • If you spend time outdoors consider wearing a well-fitted respirator type mask (e.g., NIOSH, N95 or equivalent).
  • Keep indoor air clean:
    • Use a portable HEPA air cleaner to filter indoor air in a room where you spend a lot of time in.
    • Reduce sources of indoor air pollution:
      • Smoking and vaping
      • Vacuuming (unless your vacuum has a HEPA filter)
      • Burning incense and candles or using air purifiers that produce ozone
      • Using wood stoves
      • Using cleaning products that can emit high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
    • If indoor temperatures are comfortable, prevent outside air from coming indoors.
      • Close windows and doors
      • Install high quality air filters
      • Set HVAC to recirculate mode
      • Limit use of exhaust fan when cooking
    • Use air conditioning and humidification/dehumidification
    • Install CO alarm in your home
  • Take a break from the smoke. Visit public spaces like community centres and libraries which tend to have cleaner, cooler, indoor air.
  • When driving, keep windows up and air conditioning on. Use recirculated air setting to limit intake of outdoor air.

Other Recommendations to Protect Your Health from Wildfire Smoke Exposure

  • Use the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) to evaluate local air quality conditions. For more information on AQHI, please click here.
  • Drink lots of water. This helps your body cope with the smoke.
  • Check-in on others. Check on those in your care, family, friends, and neighbours who may be more sensitive to smoke.
  • If you have a chronic health condition:
    • Speak with your healthcare provider to create a plan for smoky conditions.
    • Make sure you have rescue medications (e.g., inhaler) on hand and carry them with you at all times.
  • Know where to find reliable information on wildfire smoke and air quality and pay attention to information and direction from local authorities. The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, Health Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and your local municipality are good sources of information. More resources can be found below.

It is important to be aware and take care of your mental health during wildfire smoke events. It is normal to feel anxious, stressed, sad, or isolated during a wildfire smoke event. Take care by eating well, getting sleep, exercising indoors, and staying connected with friends and family. Contact your mental healthcare provider for advice or visit the Wellness Together Canada website.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is important and good for your health and the health of the planet every day. On days when air quality is particularly bad, it is important to take extra steps to reduce air pollution:

  • Reduce the number of trips you take in a car
  • Avoid using a firepit, fireplace, or wood stove
  • Avoid burning anything outdoors (e.g., leaves)
  • Avoid using gas-powered garden equipment (e.g., lawn mower) or recreational vehicles (e.g., ATV)

Click here for more ways you can help improve air quality.

Facing Multiple Threats

Wildfire smoke can happen at the same time as other heat threats like extreme heat, extreme weather, or power outages.

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit has information to help you prepare for and stay safe during extreme heat events and other public health threats.

Climate-Health Connection

Our climate is changing, and these changes are affecting our health and wellbeing in Simcoe Muskoka. Rising temperatures, more severe thunderstorms, drought, and extreme heat, increases the risk of wildfires in our region and across Ontario and Canada. Climate change is leading to more frequent and more severe wildfires. Simultaneously, wildfires contribute to the extent of climate change (release of greenhouse gas emissions) and reduces forest mitigation (carbon sequestration) and adaptation (flood, heat, ultraviolet radiation protection, water and air filtration, mental health) potential. In this way, wildfires can contribute to additional climate-health risks.

Climate change also impacts other aspects of air quality and other related health threats like heat, drought, and severe storms. More information on how climate change affects health can be found here.

Actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (climate change mitigation) and other air pollutants will directly improve air quality, fight climate change, and reduce the risks of wildfires. Together we can make a difference in supporting healthy people and communities in a changing climate.

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